“Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.” ~Karl Marx
On the 27th of September 2020, the Indian agricultural acts also known as the Farm Bills got approved by the President of India after being introduced in the Lok Sabha on September 14th and Rajya Sabha on the 19th amidst an enraged opposition. While the Bills were hailed by the right-wing government officials and a few economists, the key stakeholders, i.e., the farmers were upset. The fact of the matter was, just like every other bill under Modi’s BJP, this one too did not take into account the views of those for whom the bill was being introduced in the State itself. An undemocratic procedure was followed in the Parliament of a Democracy where the Bills were passed by a voice vote despite opposition MPs asking for a division, i.e. a recorded vote – which the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) clearly was not in a position to win. The three farm bills were namely, The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; The Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020. Economists like Ashok Gulati and the government claimed that the bills aimed at liberalizing the farm sector by digitizing the process, sidelining the APMC system (Agricultural Produce Market Committee), and making the farmers sell their produce themselves without the need of a middleperson. But on the 9th of August, 2020, farmers from Punjab gathered for the first time and protested against the proposed Bills. They proclaimed that this was yet another tactic to corporatize the agricultural sector in the welfare State, remove the much-needed Mandi system and capitalize on what was to be grown. While economists such as SA Aiyar too claimed the bills were beneficial for the agriculture and economy of India, the environmentalists and activists such as Yogendra Yadav and P. Sainath claimed they were harmful for the farmers of the country. In fact, 10 senior economists too had collectively written a letter to the Modi government, asking for the repeal of the Bills. Their main concerns were the creation of an “unregulated market in the trade areas side by side with a regulated market in the APMC” and the “entry to unequal players in contract farming due to domination by big agricultural businesses”.
The first Bill about Trade and Commerce was supposed to provide for barrier-free trade outside the market stated in APMC laws to promote inter-state trade and e-trading. For any farmer to trade under the Scheduled Farmers’ Produce (agricultural produce specified under any State APMC Act for regulation), a registered PAN or registration under a company was essential, the absence of which would lead to a penalty of about Rs. 25,000 to 5 lacs. The market here would be thrown completely open for the private players to come into the farmers’ livelihood sector and make direct contractual deals. According to government sources and estimates, the average income of a farming household was at a standstill of Rs 8,931 per month in 2016-17. 85% of the farmers are marginal and small-scale and own less than 2 hectares of land. In such deplorable conditions, it seems high-headed and privileged to legislate a bill that would expect farmers to give up on the Mandi system (a market place within a State regulated by APMC where farmers sell their produce to the buyers through auction to licensed shop owning middlepersons), the middle-service providers, and go to a different State to sell their produce. With no extra efforts put in the realm of increasing technological literacy or literacy in general among the disadvantaged farmers, shifting to e-trade also seems to only help corporations set up industries and absorb contract-based farmers, who get minimal rights and security as compared to permanent employees.
The second Bill about price assurance and farms services was meant to be a price agreement between the farmer and the buyer prior to the production of the crop. It also said that in case of any dispute, the resolution could be sought in by applying to a sub-divisional magistrate to expect a resolution within 30 days, and thereafter appeal to the District Collector if necessary. What this Bill quietly does is set up a ‘price assurance’ without any mandate for a legal Minimum Support Price (minimum price set by the government for certain agricultural products, at which the products would directly be bought from the farmers if the open market prices are less than the cost incurred). It also takes away the right of a farmer to take the dispute to a Court who instead, would have to dive into the bureaucratic method of resolution that might have high chances of favoring the other party of big corporates.
The third Bill about Essential Commodities sought to remove certain commodities like cereal, potatoes, pulses, onions, oil, etc. from the Essential Commodities list. This exempts these commodities from any regulation except for in “extraordinary circumstances”. The amendment paves a way for legalized hoarding of the said commodities and subsequent inflation caused by manipulating the supply and demand chain.
All the three Bills combined create a clear path for contract farming, corporatization, hoardings, no MSP, and no Court redressals which would definitely have a detrimental impact on the 85% of small-scale marginal Indian farmers especially, who would be deliberately wiped off by huge conglomerates and the private businesses. When similar legislation was introduced in the United State’s agricultural sector in the 1970s, the outcome was precisely what activists today fear for India. Currently, there are about 23.5 million Americans who live in ‘food deserts’ where they do not have access to affordable and good-quality fresh foods. Economic supermarket chains offer ultra-processed foods, like refined cornflakes, sodas, cookies, chips, etc. but fresh produce of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, rice is scarce. Only the wealthiest have access to the healthiest of food chains. This divide was created as the farming industry was taken over by corporations that opened their chains only in affluent areas which were profitable. Only 1.5% of American population is engaged in farming. The liberalization policy of agriculture forced small-scale farmers to leave and find odd jobs in cities. Hence, the revolting farmers were not “a terrorist organisation”, “misled” or “Khalistanis”. The revolting farmers of India were both, against the current regime and their undemocratic methods and also the entire system of capitalism and its adverse effects on our agrarian society.
Their fight bore fruit. The three Farm Bills were repealed after President Kovind gave his assent on December 1. This was achieved after a year long collective protest by the farmers of India. However, the fight is not yet over. The farm bills brought in the scope of capture by capitalist corporations but without them too, feudalistic landlords continue to exploit the most marginalised farmers. Instead of new policies on commercialising farming, the government needs to emphasise on and encourage local sustainable farming methods and a transparent system to help small-scale farmers through subsidies. Hence, free markets and liberalisation are not the answer to the problems of farmers in current India. Inclusivity, equal access and wages for women and Dalits, a legal MSP and a properly regulated as well easily accessible Mandi system is.